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Moulded by Family: Gender Roles That Shape Us

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04 Apr 2024

4 Min Read

Afrina Arfa (Alumni Writer), Nellie Chan (Editor)


Explore how family-moulded gender roles and expectations not only shape dynamics within families but also sculpt broader societal inequalities!

Home is where the heart is, right? Well, it’s also where children learn firsthand what it means to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’. From the moment we’re born, our assigned gender acts as an invisible voice of directive, influencing not just how we’re treated within the family, but also determining how we’re expected to behave and even defining what we’re allowed to do within society. And as we grow up to be adults and eventually become parents ourselves, we unwittingly perpetuate these entrenched gender norms, passing them down to our children.


While many may view these gender norms as useful guides for navigating life and maintaining household stability, their ‘misuse’ can frequently result in discrimination, inequality, and ultimately, the limitation of individual freedom. One significant instance of this ‘misuse’ arises within the more traditional family, where boys are expected to grow up to become providers, while girls are expected to grow up to become caregivers. Suddenly, these future men and women find themselves not only conforming to societal gender expectations but also contending with them within the very walls of their homes.


So, yes, while home is indeed where the heart is, it’s also where outdated gender roles can (mis)shape us.

Traditional Gender Roles

From the moment one says ‘I do’, they step onto the stage of a household drama, assuming roles passed down through generations. According to the ‘script’, both men and women are expected to contribute equally or equitably to the well-being of their household. However, reality often tells a different story: men face 100% of the pressure to provide financially, while women shoulder 100% of the burden of household chores. A 2017 survey revealed that 92% of Malaysian men were involved in seeking employment and generating income for the family, whereas 95% of Malaysian women were involved in housework, childcare, and eldercare duties. 

Woman cradles baby in foreground while man works in background

Sure, conforming to these traditional gender roles might suit some individuals, but for others, the consequences can be detrimental. More and more men are facing mental health strains as the primary breadwinners, while more and more women are abandoning their careers for familial responsibilities. This phenomenon is observed worldwide, with the proportion of women in senior management standing at only 29% in 2020.

Gendered Power Dynamics

In every family, a hierarchy inevitably exists, with certain members exerting greater power and influence due to their age, gender, or other defining characteristics. This hierarchy can be traced back to centuries of entrenched gender roles, societal norms, and economic forces. Particularly in patriarchal societies, this hierarchy consistently reinforces the notion of male dominance and female subservience, establishing a power dynamic that favours men.


While some degree of power dynamic is to be expected, serving as structure and a set of rules for the family — consider your own family; your parents likely had the authority to direct your actions when you were children in the interest of your health, safety, and well-being — an imbalanced dynamic often results in undesirable consequences, such as the unequal distribution of decision-making authority within the family. It can limit one‘s autonomy and agency, impacting their ability to make choices that align with their personal and professional aspirations. 

For instance, women are often expected to prioritise caregiving roles over career advancement, thus limiting their professional growth and opportunities for leadership positions. However, this issue is not exclusive to women; men may also feel constrained by rigid gender expectations learned from childhood, leaving little room for exploring alternative paths or expressing their emotions about it.

Man resting forehand in hand, appearing stressed

So, you’ve got this picture-perfect family on the outside, everyone playing their part, but inside, unfulfillment simmers and dissatisfaction boils, potentially leading to strained familial relationships.

Impact on Current and Future Households

‘Family knows best‘ — that‘s the mantra we grow up hearing. A child‘s upbringing is moulded by their family, shaping everything from their earliest words to their attitudes and aspirations. While parents (or parental figures) always have their child‘s best interest at heart, not all fully grasp the dangers traditional gender stereotypes can pose for them. When children witness gendered divisions of roles and labour within their own homes, they internalise these norms, eventually reproducing them in their own lives. This then becomes more than just a problem for one household — it‘s a concern that ripples through households, potentially spreading intergenerational cycles of gender discrimination and inequality.


As we contemplate the intricate dynamics of gender roles and expectations within families, it becomes evident that what appears to be a tiny spark can swiftly escalate into a raging fire if left unchecked. From perpetuating harmful stereotypes to exacerbating mental health issues and hindering personal and professional growth, the consequences of entrenched gender norms are profound. 


However, just as a spark has the potential to ignite a destructive blaze, it also possesses the power to illuminate a beacon of change. By acknowledging the impact of traditional gender roles and actively challenging them, we can facilitate open dialogue within our families and cultivate environments where both men and women are empowered to break free of these moulds and pursue their chosen paths, regardless of gender.

In the spirit of reflection and celebration, Selamat Hari Raya!

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Afrina Arfa is a Bachelor of Finance and Economics (Honours) alumna of Taylor's University. She spends her time indulging in economic news, hoping to inspire others to think beyond the constraints of society.

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